Cuba was a destination I had been wanting to visit for years, but the idea of spending a week at an all inclusive wasn’t appealing. When I was booking my trip there, Viñales was one of the towns I knew I wanted to explore. Viñales is a World Heritage Site, but the main reason why I wanted to visit was to explore the tobacco fields and see how cigars are prepared. My trip was with Cuban Adventures, on the New Years Rumba tour. In Viñales, they did a wonderful job, arranging a guide for us who lived in the area and knew it as only a local could. He had a wealth of knowledge on tobacco, vegetation and the people who live there. Even for those not big on tobacco, Viñales has lots to offer: its surrounding farmland is lush and plentiful, with organic farms, caves, horseback riding, beach excursions, swimming and lots of day hikes. Valeri, our main guide for the tour, gave us plenty of tips about what we could do, joined us for lunch and made sure we were taken care of in our homestays. The only thing I would have changed? We would have spent more time there. It was a hard place to leave but one day, I’ll be back.
The journey to Viñales Valley – World Heritage Site
With nine hours on the road including stops, the trip from Cienfuegos to Viñales was the longest travel day of our tour and also my 30th birthday. We spent it drinking rum on the bus, stopping off at Museo Giron (to see the Bag of Pigs invasion from the Cuban perspective), and snorkeling in clear, turquoise and aqua blue water. On the winding roads, we passed bright green tobacco and farm fields, cows and horses grazing in the fields and small wooden houses. As the sun began to set between the mountains, the fields glowed with soft, orange light. By the time we pulled into the Viñales, the dome-like limestone mountain (mogotes) rose from the lush green landscape backlit with the soft glow the sunset provided.
Once I’d dropped my bag at my new casa, Nasser, Christel and I went out for dinner at a local paladar. After a relaxing supper, we met up with the rest of our group at Centro Cultural Polo Montanez. We spent the rest of the night watching dance performances (of varying quality) and enjoying plenty of mojitos (consistently superb). I leaned back and enjoyed the celebrations, as you only turn thirty once! Stray dogs followed us back to our casa. We weren’t sure if they wanted to play or just wanted food (as they are used to receiving food from tourists). I resisted the urge to stay out and play with the strays as I needed my sleep!
The next morning, I woke up early to enjoy the rocking chair on the porch of my casa. Morning’s mist slowly burnt off as I watched the locals go by in their rusting 50s cars or horse drawn carriages. I was daydreaming about staying in this paradise when my alarm signalled it was time for breakfast. A busy day was ahead of us, with a walk into the valley and a visit to a tobacco farm.
Viñales sees lots of tourists; they’re the main industry aside from agriculture. However, the area retains a laid-back atmosphere. The main draw is the chance to explore the valley on bike, foot or horseback. I’m not sure exactly what combination of the tobacco, the fresh mountain air, the pace of life, the friendly and welcoming residents or the local organic produce captured me, but I’d didn’t want to leave Viñales, and plan to be back.
With only one main road in town, it’s hard to get lost. As we waited for our group to join us, I was struck by the absence of jineteros/jineteras like those that infest the tourist areas of Havana. It was a refreshing change to be in a full-on tourist town without the constant hustles and come-ons. It also seemed that almost all the houses, except for the farms, are casa particulars (like home stays) to accommodate all the visitors.
As our group collected, our Cuban Adventures guide, Valeri, introduced us to his friend, who would be leading us on a walk. After a quick introduction, we set off along the dirt paths, with the sun beating down. As we circled the fields, we spied a range of plants, including coffee, beans, pineapples and a variety of potatoes. We were able to try some of the crops: everything was fresh and crispy, with a powerful flavour. Since it was winter, the season when tobacco is planted, we saw fields of little plants mixed in among the larger ones. After exploring the farms, we needed a break from the heat and headed to a farmer’s house to enjoy some lemonade before meeting with the tobacco farmer.
Visiting a Tobacco Farm in Viñales
We entered the thatched hut where tobacco is aged to learn about the process. Each farmer is given a quota with 90% of the crops being bought by the government. The final 10% remains with the farmer for personal use, local sales/exchanges or making and selling cigars to the tourists who visit. If you would like to learn more about the art of Cuban cigars, here’s a video to get you fired up:
Change to 1080p to watch the video in HD!
Each farmer has their own recipe for fermentation. Our farmer shared his secret recipe which had been passed down: water, pineapple skin, guava leaves, honey, sugar cane and a little rum. In contrast, our guide’s family recipe uses water, vanilla and rum. The leaves are placed in a royal palm tree box for a minimum of a year to ferment. After the leaves are fermented, they are ready to be rolled! And sorry guys, but those images you have of the cigar in your mouth having been rolled on the thighs of a dusky maiden are just a myth.
Cigars are made from three parts: a filler (the heart of the cigar), a binder and the wrapper. Four to six leaves are used as a minimum to roll a cigar, depending on the size. The main veins of the leaves are removed as they hold seventy percent of the nicotine. The veins do not go to waste as they are used for perfume, fertilizer or pesticide. The location of the leaves on the plant makes a difference, the top leaves receive more sun and create a stronger leaf.
After our farmer finished his demonstration, he lit up an aged cigar. The smell was strong and the taste, smooth with a hint of honey. The cigars were passed around for us to try, and I enjoyed watching people’s reaction. I ended up enjoying most of the cigar as the others tried it and didn’t want any more than a couple of puffs.
As I took in the smoke, I looked out into the valley and into the tobacco fields below. This was one of the top things that I wanted to experience in Cuba and I enjoyed every minute of it.
With the cigar smoking at an end, we started our walk back into town and enjoyed a group lunch. Between the heat, tobacco and lack of sleep, my body was craving rest. While most of the group went on to explore more, one of my tour mates, Nasser and I walked to a local hotel outside of town to swim and make use of the shower. The only negative things about the afternoon, I had my worst mojito in Cuba and the sun kept playing peekaboo among the clouds. However, I was still on a high from the tobacco experience and enjoyed the beautiful views into the lush valley below. I got some much needed rest before I headed out for another night of watching live music and dancing.
As we packed up the next morning, New Years Eve, I was sad to leave, but we were off to Havana to celebrate the New Year at Cathedral Plaza in Old Havana.
Want to read more about Cuba, check out: Celebrating Christmas Eve in Cuba – Las Parrandas de Remedios
Disclosure: Part of my trip was sponsored by Cuban Adventures. However, all of the opinions here are my own. They did an incredible job with organizing our trip with safe and comfortable home stays, included activities and plenty of recommendations on where to eat and what to do. Our guide, Valeri went out of his way to make sure we were taken care of and having the best time possible. I loved my time in Cuba that I’m hoping to go back in October.